As the Winona Area Public School (WAPS) District considers closing some or all of its in-town elementary schools, another government body is honoring the historical significance of the buildings. Last Wednesday, the Winona Heritage Preservation Committee (HPC) voted to award its annual Preservation Commendation Award to the Madison, Washington-Kosciusko, Jefferson, and Central elementary school buildings. (Central is no longer operated as an elementary school.)
"The school district has taken incredibly good care of those buildings," said HPC Chair Bob Sebo. "The elevator addition at Central was done very sensitively so that it didn't distract from the character of the building." Sebo explained the reasons for the nomination. "It's just basic things like tuck pointing, roofing, and taking care of the terra cotta floors. They've been excellent stewards of those buildings."
The HPC also directed city staff this spring to prepare the necessary paperwork to nominate the buildings to the Local Register of Historic Places. Unlike the national register, a successful nomination to the local register would protect the buildings from demolition or significant exterior alterations unless approved by the City Council. The committee has not officially nominated the schools, but would be poised to do so. Any nominations would require the approval of City Council.
The HPC considered nominating the four elementary school buildings to the local register in 2009. That idea was dropped after a negative response from the school board. The board came close to officially opposing even a national register nomination in a letter to the State Historic Preservation Office in 2009. The letter was revised at the last minute to express a more neutral stance towards national register nomination.
Following the HPC meeting, Sebo told the Winona Post, "We've been persuading the school district that these buildings are worthy of historic preservation. This is a way of letting them know that we also appreciate the incredible job they've done of maintaining them and preserving them over the years, I think it's kind of nice that those messages would go hand-in-hand."
Often referred to as facilities discussions, or attempts to discern an appropriate-sized physical plant for future enrollment, the issue of elementary school closures has been the subject of heated debate among school board members. The board is in the middle of series of large budget cuts with the worst yet to come. Estimates call for the district to cut its budget by $750,000 next year and $400,000 in 2015. WAPS Superintendent Scott Hannon has presented the school board with a few possible cost-saving measures, including a plan to switch to grade-level elementary schools, where all the students in a given grade would attend a single building, and a plan to build a new, district-wide elementary school that would replace the existing buildings. Both would reduce staffing needs and expenditures, according to district staff. School board member Steve Schild has supported considering both ideas. The district's declining enrollment means that both revenues and building needs are down, he has argued.
Maintenance costs for the existing buildings are another point highlighted by supporters of building closures. Sebo described the buildings as "in really good shape," but district staff's estimations for future maintenance costs seem to paint a different picture.
Closing the city's elementary schools is unthinkable for some. School board member Jay Kohner expressed his opposition to grade-level elementary schools at a board meeting this spring, calling it the "first step to eliminating neighborhood schools." There are a variety of reasons why some support the existing buildings, but for some the fear that these historic buildings would ultimately be demolished is a concern. Lincoln Elementary School was closed and ultimately torn down and converted into a Winona State University parking lot.
When asked if the remaining school buildings were worth saving, Sebo said "of course," but stressed that whether they remain open as schools is of no concern to the commission. He added, "As an individual, I would do everything in my power to prevent the destruction of those buildings, and we'll hopefully never cross that bridge."
The school buildings are currently on the National Register of Historic Places, which provides grant opportunities for preservation and upkeep, but does nothing to hinder attempts to alter or demolish buildings.